What We Learn About Ourselves When We Start Tracking Our Time

The hidden -and quite often surprising- value in understanding what we do with time.

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We’ve all heard the cliches: Time is valuable. Time is our most precious commodity. We’ve even seen the studies: A time-saving purchase makes people happier than a material purchase.

And yet, most people avoid actually taking the time to, well, track their time. It’s understandable: For decades, if not longer, people have been using crude, unpleasant means to keep track of what they’re doing — spreadsheets, handwritten tables, or mental notes. Filling out a timesheet at the end of each week can be arduous and unfulfilling.

But like many areas of our lives, technological improvements — mainly powered by the apps on our smartphones and other smart wearables — have made it easier to keep track of how we’re spending our time, both at the office and around-the-clock.

Whatever tool you use, whatever app you choose, whatever means you desire, if you start tracking your time (maybe you’ll begin with a spreadsheet, then move over to an app that can help you drill down or get even more accurate data) you’ll start finding out things about yourself, your workflow, and your productivity that you never would have noticed otherwise.

We spoke to seven professionals who have tracked their time for various reasons and by various means, and they shared their surprising findings. What will yours be?

(*Note: Some of these responses have been edited for clarity.)

1) Checking email is a bigger productivity killer than we think

Checking email is one of the biggest roadblocks to productivity. Looking at our email feels productive, but what else do you do for, according to some estimates, four hours a day, that yields fewer actual results?

The issue, according to Michael Roub, managing partner at Inflection 360, is that we don’t schedule email checking, and instead we allow it to take over our days.

“About a year ago I made the painful decision to start manually tracking my time for a few weeks to understand how long each task was taking,” says Roub. “I was able to confirm that I was putting plenty of hours on my desired tasks, but I quickly realized that my email use was repeatedly disrupting my day. It caused me to re-think how I planned my time.”

“I started building email review and response into my schedule at three distinct times… I continued to tinker with the amount of time allocated for emails and found that 20–30 minutes was the most I should allocate at my planned intervals,” he says.

But checking email is so easy to do — open the tab, tap the app — it seems like the disruption should be minimal, right? Wrong.

A typical worker requires approximately 20 minutes to regain focus on their work,” after checking email, Roub says.

As a result, email doesn’t just distract us for the time it takes to open our inboxes. The ripple is felt for hours each day.

2) Multitasking is killing our productivity

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Most people consider “multitasking” a sought-after skill. And if you can actually switch back and forth effectively between two different things, congratulations — you’re rarer than you think.

Lots of research has been written about the detriments of context switching, and time tracking can highlight how often you’re switching between small tasks — this is critical to correct in order to focus,” says Joe Robison, a consultant and the founder of Green Flag Digital.

Context switching, another word for multitasking, is when you move from one task to another before the first is finished. While often used when discussing programming, it’s helpful to think of your brain in the same way that one might think of a computer.

“Context switching is at odds with creative work because you are switching back and forth between short bursts of different tasks that distract you and don’t allow you to get in the deep focus mode that allows you to be creative. Sophie Leroy, a professor at University of Minnesota, named this effect attention residue,” says Robison. “When this happens multiple times, it becomes harder and harder to focus on creative work, which requires deeper focus.”

3) Our time estimates are often way off

Information is power, and the fact that we’re so often in the dark about how much time a task takes us means that we’re often operating at less-than-optimal power.

Understanding how long a task takes, as opposed to how long you think it takes, is the difference between a well-planned, productive day and a blown one, according to business systems strategist Alaia Williams.

“I’m a pretty good writer and I feel like I write blog posts pretty quickly,” she says. “But in trying to write, publish and promote a post in one shot — things took longer than I thought. I knew I was a fast writer, but without tracking, I was really just guessing how long things took… What starts as a 30–45 minute blog post, in theory, becomes 2 to 3 hours, depending on the length of the post.”

On the other hand, she says, “Once I started tracking my campaign creation, I realized my newsletters typically take me less than an hour — usually around 30 minutes. Every time I get a campaign out I feel relieved, wonder why I didn’t do it sooner and curse the time I spent deliberating about it.”

Now, Williams says, she doesn’t avoid or overthink email campaigns anymore. “I just get them done and often work ahead, scheduling out a series of campaigns.”

4) We aren’t good at prioritizing

Humans are emotional animals. We tend to think with our hearts as much as with our heads. Anyone who has eaten dessert rather than gone to the gym understands this feeling.

Syed Irfan Ajmal, growth marketing manager at Ridester, started tracking his time and comparing it to other data he began collecting, such as revenue data or health data.

“This led to insights like which projects/interests may be more close to my heart but are not yielding good enough results yet in terms of monetary benefits,” he says. “For instance, realizing that I was spending too much time on speaking gigs at the cost of ignoring other, more lucrative, work, I decided to say no to speaking gigs more often, and the renewed focus on other areas of work helped me perform better, achieve more milestones, and earn more revenue.

For Syed, the value in time tracking came from understanding that he wasn’t, in fact, doing everything right. “The analysis led me to realize how I have had been irresponsible in certain areas, and why I need to prioritize better and evaluate all the data on a regular basis to stay on track,” he says.

5) Organizing our time helps us sleep better

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Surprising benefits abound when we start tracking our time working. One in particular deals with an area that vexes a lot of people: How to get more sleep.

Studies have actually shown that writing out a to-do list for the next day, or organizing your thoughts in general, can help you fall asleep more quickly. Doing so “offloads” the responsibility of thinking about tomorrow, according to Baylor University researchers.

Jakub Kliszczak of CrazyCall.com found that tracking and organizing his time was a major boon for his sleep patterns.

“I know that it might sound weird, but it actually works. I had a really bad sleep habit and couldn’t fall asleep even when I was extremely tired. I didn’t realize that it was mostly because of me thinking about various tasks, problem, and assignments that I will have to do the next day. Putting each of them on my calendar helped me clear my mind and finally made falling asleep easy,” says Kliszczak.

“I’ve started to see the changes after the first week. My mind suddenly became clear and there was nothing to focus on besides the sleep itself,” he says.

6) We are thinking when we should be doing

Sometimes a lack of awareness is all that stands between us and finishing our work. Tracking our time helps us see how many hours we spend in stasis.

John Shieldsmith, a content marketer and operator of thethriftydad.com, noticed this trend quickly upon tracking his time.

“When I first started time tracking I noticed a few things right away. First, I was spending a lot of time getting up to go do various things: coffee breaks, social breaks, more coffee breaks. I also realized how much time I was spending spinning my wheels on tasks, simply thinking and thinking and not doing,” he says.

Now that he’s aware that thinking without doing is an issue, says Shieldsmith, he’s much more efficient and effective in his working hours.

“I would often have writing projects that now take me roughly two hours, but previously would have taken me upwards of four. Much of that additional time was on account of me not being reminded of the time I was spending, as I wasn’t using a timer at that point. Because of this I would either sit and think and think, spending way too much time planning and not enough time executing.”

7) We can use our “down time” more effectively

The final thing we notice when tracking our time is how much down time we have, and how we can better utilize that time to accomplish our long-term goals.

“I commute to and from work 5 days a week. I live in a suburb outside of Houston, TX so when traffic gets going, my time gets absorbed by brake lights. I calculated that if I spent about 3 hours per 5 days a week for an entire year, I’d be sitting in my car for a total of 30 days,” says Alexa Amador from STDcheck.com.

“Once I realized this, I made a decision to truly listen to more audiobooks or podcasts that are either enlightening or motivating… Listening to these on the way to work makes me feel like I have a head start. Sometimes, when I used to only listen to music, it took a lot longer to get settled into my workflow. Now, after listening to them, I feel more awake and aware,” says Amador.

“As a digital marketer, I have a lot of writing tasks on my plate. Listening to these on the way to work helps me make more creative social posts, blog posts, and general conversations with coworkers. I feel so much more engaged, especially while writing blogs,” she says.

Time is only as valuable as what we choose to do with it. By recognizing how much time we spend not doing the things we need to succeed, we see how much time we actually have to start doing the opposite.